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A horrific and violent crime is committed which has the whole of Holland shocked at the senseless brutality involved. The crime was caught on CCTV and shown on TV but the teenage perpetrators were unidentifiable on the grainy film wearing hoodies which disguised them. Paul Lohman is shaken when he discovers that one of the teenage thugs is his own son Michel and his cousin Rick is his sidekick. Paul and his wife Claire arrange to meet with Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner in a swanky restaurant in order to discuss what course of action to take. Would you protect your child if they had committed an atrocity or would you make them face the consequences of their actions?
The story of the Loham family comes out over the course of the dinner; each course focusing on another part of the tale. This is a family with some issues' Paul has been placed on leave from his job as a teacher following a breakdown and is hostile towards his brother, the successful politician and minor celebrity Serge finding him shallow and flash. Serge has built his reputation as a family man who is admired for adopting Beau from Africa and this incident becoming public could ruin his chances at the upcoming election. The marriage between Serge and Babette is also under strain and this incident only seeks to highlight the divisions in the family.
I loved the way that the act which triggered the dinner was revealed slowly, allowing the tension in the story to build. It is a truly gruesome act of violence which will make your stomach churn with its awfulness. The reader learns about Michel's upbringing and early life and I certainly wondered how a seemingly normal little boy could grow up into such a callous teenager. He had a normal and loving upbringing, was it the fact that his parents doted on him so much that caused his descent into violence? There is a chance he may have inherited some rogue gene, is it this to blame? How much responsibility do the parents have for the acts of their almost grown up children?
There are many more moral dilemmas for the reader to ponder during the course of the book. Is the love for an adopted child equal to that of your biological offspring or do the parental instincts to protect not kick in to the same extent when the child is not genetically related to you. If you have to make a choice between saving only one of your children what one do you choose? I will admit that I did not always like the conclusions that the author came to and found most of the characters dislikeable and had little sympathy with their plight.
The Dinner could have been a very dark book but luckily there was a heavy injection of very dark humour from Paul's mutterings. When he was describing the pretentious waiter and overpriced food in the posh restaurant or ranting about his brother Serge the text was hilarious and brought a wry smile to my face.
I really enjoyed The Dinner, it is a clever and multi layered little story which made me think, made me smile and also had me shouting in frustration at some of the character's actions. It has become a best seller across Europe after being translated from its original Dutch and it is easy to see why. It is not a perfect book, I thought it lost its way briefly at one point but it recovered. There are one or two instances of odd translation from Dutch into English which left me momentarily puzzled but the majority of the book was extremely readable. It is also a book which I may well choose when it is my turn to host my bookclub since I can see it sparking lots of very heated discussions.
Serge Lohman, presidential candidate, is not the kind of man to frequent the cafés of ordinary people, and so when his brother Paul and his wife Claire join Serge and wife Babette for dinner, it can only be at the fanciest of locales, and for 'fanciest' read poshest, snootiest, and most overpriced. And while they may be in Holland, going Dutch is not on the menu. This is not Serge's story, however. It is Paul's, and what he lacks in terms of income, power and influence compared to his brother, he more than makes up for with dry humour and astute observations.
And so, the couples gather. And they chit chat. And talk eventually turns to their sons. The two boys have committed a crime and that crime has now surfaced publically. There will be repercussions, but the four diners cannot agree on how to handle the situation. For some there are public images to consider, for others there are less superficial things to think about. With certain parties knowing only segments of the story, there are also revelations to negotiate. In the end, if doing what's right for society and doing what's right for the family do not marry up, there will need to be a winner and a loser at the table, and someone may need to be forcefully silenced to keep it that way.
This is an unusual and fascinating book set over the course of a dinner (from aperitif to digestif, for it is that kind of place). Paul narrates the courses, with several prolonged journeys into past events that help make sense of the present, and while I thought it was a slow chew to start with, I gobbled it up greedily towards the end. The characters are fleshed out well, with Paul being much more than Serge's boring civilian brother, and Claire coming into her own as the story progresses.
The book is a translation from the Dutch, but I get the impression that the rather sterile, detached tone is a representation of the original style rather than something being lost in translation. Paul is a remote kind of guy who can sit back and narrate on surroundings without much emotion, and this lends itself well to the heinous acts of the story on which he is reflecting. In another world, the boys would have been caught and punished already, but these are teens from educated, middle class families, whose parents know how to play the system. The boys should have known better than to act the way they did - certainly they were brought up better than that - but now that it's done the immediate issue is damage control to limit the fall out both for the boys and for the parents.
This book isn't about an obviously amusing subject, and yet it's wickedly funny in parts. Paul is an excellent narrator whose contempt for his brother is thinly concealed, and so even though there are more pressing issues to address, he cannot avoid little digs here and there. The circumstances under which he left his last job are also quite comical in a mildly inappropriate way, as is the ending when you cannot help but feel that justice has been served.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this one, and the cover did little to clue me in, but in the end I found it a highly original, thought provoking and entertaining read about feuding families, pretentious restaurants and the limits of acceptable behaviour. Whether or not you agree that what the boys did was utterly unforgivable, you'll appreciate the different perspectives shown in reactions to it.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
You can buy The Dinner in paperback and on Kindle, both out now.